The big break came in a small package: tiny test tubes, delivered by the FBI, from a military lab at Fort Detrick in Frederick, where lab workers had spotted a series of odd-looking bacteria colonies. Those oddities would help the Rockville scientists decipher the genetic signature of the anthrax used in the nation’s most serious bioterror attack.
Earlier this year, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published the first thorough account of the research that was key to solving the anthrax case. The FBI closed Amerithrax last year with a report that linked the attacks to a broth of spores stored in a flask in the Fort Detrick lab of Army scientist Bruce E. Ivins. The letters killed five people and terrorized a nation still reeling from the Sept. 11 attacks.
The public learned of Ivins in 2008, when he swallowed a lethal dose of headache pills as the FBI closed in. But scientists at the Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville made the genetic leaps that would link the attacks to Ivins years earlier, in 2003.
“The guy really succeeded in scaring a lot of people,” said Steven Salzberg, who ran computational work at the Rockville lab. He now directs the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at the University of Maryland.
Salzberg and his colleagues are now free to discuss their work. So are Terry Abshire and Pat Worsham, lab workers at Fort Detrick, who first spotted the genetic oddities that would lead federal agents to a lab on their own compound.
The two teams — one at a private lab in Rockville, the other at a military installation in Frederick — produced pioneering work in an environment of exhaustion and fear. Ordinary citizens fretted about contracting anthrax through the mail or from the very air they breathed. For members of the two science teams, the danger seemed incomparably nearer.
“It was not only coming to work. It was worrying about what might be in your mail,” said Abshire, whose daughter and granddaughter were living with her at the time. “There was one point where I was bleaching everything down before I came in the house.”
When the anthrax case began, FBI agents had no actual fingerprints, no convenient DNA sample with which to collar a suspect. What they had were spores, and it wasn’t clear how to trace them to their source.
The Rockville scientists, tapped by the FBI, knew they might be able to identify, in essence, a genetic fingerprint in the spores themselves. Such technology had been pioneered at the lab in 1995.
“It immediately occurred to me that we could sequence it and decode its genome,” Salzberg said. “We were the world’s premier place for doing DNA sequencing with bacteria.”